Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Heather Graham

Sex Guru

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The Guru on DVD.

"Funny," was how both Heather Graham and Jimi Mistry described each other, after having met and worked together for the first time on the new romantic comedy The Guru, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

"He's obnoxious in the greatest way," Graham, 33, says of Mistry, 29, an English-born actor of Indian ancestry, best known for his role in the 1999 comedy East Is East.

"She's not afraid to make a fool of herself," Mistry retorts of Graham, the adorable blonde star of such films as Swingers, Boogie Nights and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

In The Guru Mistry plays Ramu, a young Indian man obsessed with the American Dream -- less interested in the latest Bollywood musical than he is in Grease. He travels to America hoping to become an actor. After a false start in the porn industry, he lands a popular gig as a "sex guru" who fixes people's sexual problems.

But Ramu doesn't really know what to tell people; he gets all his ideas from one of his former porn co-stars, Sharonna (Graham). While not making lurid movies, Sharonna lives a normal life, keeping her job a secret while engaged to a religious firefighter who wants to save their lovemaking until their wedding night.

Ramu and Sharonna secretly meet to discuss sex, though Sharonna doesn't know about his gig as the "guru." Of course the pair falls madly in love despite all the odds.

The most unusual scene in The Guru is a full-fledged musical number patterned after popular Bollywood films like Lagaan and Gumnaam (as seen in Ghost World). Neither Graham nor Mistry had much in the way of singing or dancing experience, but both pulled the trick off beautifully.

"I just lip-synced, which is probably good because my voice isn't great," Graham says. "I'm a little bit pitch-deaf. I have a good voice, but I might be off and not know it."

Mistry, on the other hand, actually recorded a song that appears on the movie's soundtrack.

"I was a big Michael Jackson fan. I always wanted to be Michael Jackson," Mistry says, who enlisted some sound-savvy friends to help record a silly, campy version of the song that closes the movie.

Mistry never knew he wanted to be an actor until he sat down with his father at age 17 and took stock of his options. His father asked him to make a list of his good points and bad points, and the final product pointed toward a job in show biz. He enlisted in the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama but was nonplussed to discover that the training was geared toward classic theater.

"I just didn't want to wear tights. It just wasn't me," Mistry says. "I didn't want to change myself to be an actor -- I wanted to be me and be an actor."

Eventually Mistry drifted into film and TV roles, finally landing a role as one of the sons in Ayub Khan-Din's popular play and movie East Is East, about an Indian family living in 1970s England with a clashing or traditions and modern day values.

Graham, on the other hand, naturally gravitated to acting from an early age. "I really liked to dress up. My sister and I would dress up and make up stories and act them out. Then I hit puberty and I felt shy and horrible about myself. When I went into a drama class I felt like I could express myself."

Her moment of truth came when she was cast as the sexpot Lola in an eighth grade production of Damn Yankees.

"I was 13 or 14, and awkward and nerdy and not at all sexy. And I was like, 'yeah!!!' It was this moment of ultimate freedom."

Graham has been playing sexually liberated characters ever since, from her porn star in Boogie Nights to Austin Powers' promiscuous lover in The Spy Who Shagged Me. Now she plays a porn star again in The Guru. She's aware of the connection, but she prefers to look at the positive side of things.

"I like that the movie brings up that people are really screwed up sexually. Our culture sends out so many mixed messages that we all need help in some ways. We're so confused; we're not feeling great about sex and sexuality."

Graham also likes the fact that The Guru may be the first Hollywood movie with an Indian leading man, not to mention the interracial romance.

Still, the movie had its limitations due to society's shyness about sex. The original title was The Guru of Sex, but was temporarily changed in order to secure permits to shoot in India. But when the time came to change the title back, the producers balked.

"They couldn't decide if sex sells or if it doesn't sell," Graham says. "So they kept the title as it was."

January, 2003

Buy Heather Graham movies on DVD
Movies Unlimtied